Manray Hsu

Tudigong or God of the Land (literally means Lord of the soil and the ground), is a tutelary deity of natural locality in Chinese folk religion. Tudigong is worshipped since ancient times to modernity. With its shrine or altar usually occupying the most “strategic” (in terms of Feng Shui) location of a place, whether in a mountain, in a village, inside a house, Tudigong plays the role of guardian for the land’s natural environment, animals, plants, as well as humans. [1]

A god of the lowest rank, Tudigong receives wishes from worshippers and grants them according to their deeds. Hence his more formal name, Fu-de-zheng-shen,"Right God of Blessing and Virtue." In many places, he is worshipped before the burial of the deceased for using his land to return their bodies to the earth. Given his close (intimate) relationship with humans, he is often called Grandfather (ye-ye), or Great Elder Lord (da-bo-gong).

Tudigong is portrayed as an elderly man with a long white beard, a black or gold hat and a red or yellow robe, which signifies his position as a bureaucrat. His superiors include City God (cheng-huang-shen) and the Jade Emperor, the supreme god. As opposed to Gaia the earth god, Tudigong is ultimately localised, in the sense of taking care of the smallest site or larger locality like a village or a city, but never the whole earth.

When people move, or “migrate”, to another village or city, they have to say goodbye to the original Tudigong and start to worship the new place’s local Tudigong. (Images: shrines and temples of Tudigong)

In modern, capitalist society, our relationship to the immediate environment, where our physical and mental existence shares a locality with other humans and creatures, is mediated by a myriad of abstractions: food, clothes, mobile phones, roads, etc. These abstractions existed in the past, but in the modern time, they operate and affect our lives in unprecedentedly high speed and large scale.

People ask Tudigong for wealth. In a current situation, the granted wealth (if any) becomes questionable, as money grows at the same speed as debt; or money as debt, resulting from the operation of geo-economic politics of globalization and neo-liberalist state.

Tudigong as our spiritual mediator with the local environment has lost his power as a mediator.

The global environment has since the 1970s become a predominant geopolitical issue. Yet, in decision makers’ book, the environment, or nature, has not only been stripped of its spiritual sense but turned into resources, with increasingly precise scientific calculations for economic returns and its manageable contributions to human welfare– an anthropocentric, bureaucratic point of view in the so-called sustainable development. [2]

People’s practices of Tudigong worship are not immune from geopolitics, either. During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), most Tudigong shrines and temples, along with other deity worship facilities and practices, were destroyed or at least, fell into oblivion. With the economic reform and opening since the late 1970s, many shrines and temples were rebuilt. While the southern provinces in China have kept strong connections with overseas Chinese, including those in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Tudigong worship has migrated rapidly back into China via these connections.

Taiwan’s democratic and economic reform since the 1980s and 1990s, together with Chinese government’s “One China” policy, has made the relationship between Taiwan and southern provinces much stronger than the Cold War period. A revival of Tudigong temple on Xian-yue Mountain in Xiamen City is a good example of instrumentalizing cultural practices under the perimeters of geopolitics. The temple got expanded with the funds provided by Taiwanese businesses and the Chinese government; its vicinity became a huge park; it held an international festival of Tudigong annually in Xiamen, Taiwan, Malaysia since 2008, bringing large numbers of visitors and worshippers. [3]

Unlike a localized shrine for a tutelary deity, many Tudigong temples in cities and towns in the region have become the winner of current international geopolitics.